From Ritual to Romance
The Fisher King
The gradual process of our investigation has
led us to the conclusion that the elements forming the existing Grail legend--the setting
of the story, the nature of the task which awaits the hero, the symbols and their
significance -- one and all, while finding their counterpart in prehistoric record,
present remarkable parallels to the extant practice and belief of countries so widely
seperate as the British Isles, Russia, and Central Asia.
I would thus separate the doubling theme, as found in Chrétien and Wolfram, from the wounded theme, equally common to these poets. This latter might possibly be accounted for on the ground of a ritual variant; the first is purely literary, explicable neither on the exoteric, nor the esoteric, aspect of the ceremony. For the exoteric point of view there are not, and there cannot be, two Kings suffering from parallel disability; the ritual knows one Principle of Life, and one alone. Equally from the esoteric standpoint Fisher King, and maimed King, representing tow different aspects of the same personality, may, and probably were, represented as two individuals, but one alone is disabled. Further, as the two are, in very truth, one, they should be equals in age, not of different generations. Thus the Bleheris version which gives us a Dead Knight, presumably, from his having been slain in battle, still in vigorous manhood, and a hale King is, ritually, the more correct. The original of Manessier's version must have been similar, but the fact that by the time it was compiled the Fisher King was generally accepted as being also the Maimed King led to the introduction of the very awkward, and poorly motivated, self-wounding incident. It will be noted that in this case the King is not healed either at the moment of the slaying of his brother's murderer (which would be the logical result of the données of the tale) nor at the moment of contact with the successful Quester, but at the mere announcement of his approach23.
Thus, if we consider the King, apart from his title, we find that alike from his position in the story, his close connection with the fortunes of his land and people, and the varying forms of the disability of which he is the victim, he corresponds with remarkable exactitude to the central figure of a well-recognized Nature ritual, and may therefore justly be claimed to belong ab origine to such a hypothetical source.
But what about his title, why should he be called the Fisher King?
Here we strike what I hold to be the main crux of the problem, a feature upon which scholars have expended much thought and ingenuity, a feature which the authors of the romances themselves either did not always understand, or were at pains to obscure by the introduction of the obviously post hoc "motif" above referred to, i.e., that he was called the Fisher King because of his devotion to the pastime of fishing: à-propos of which Heinzel sensibly remarks, that the story of the Fisher King 'presupposes a legend of this personage only vaguely known and remembered by Chrétien24."
Practically the interpretations already attempted fall into two main groups, which we may designate as the Christian -Legendary, and the Celtic- Folk-lore interpretations. For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title 'Fishers of Men,' bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman-- though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bear of the title has fallen25.
The advocates of the Folk-lore theory, on the other hand, practically evade this main difficulty, by basing their interpretation upon Borron's story of the catching of the Fish by Brons, equating this character with the Bran of Welsh tradition, and pointing to the existence, in Irish and Welsh legend, of a Salmon of Wisdom, the tasting of whose flesh confers all knowledge. Hertz acutely remarks that the incident, as related by Borron, is not of such importance as to justify the stress laid upon the name, Rich Fisher, by later writers26. We may also note in this connection that the Grail romances never employ the form 'Wise Fisher,' which, if the origin of the name were that proposed above, we might reasonably expect to find. It is obvious that a satisfactory solution of the problem must be sought elsewhere.
In my opinion the key to the puzzle is to be found in the rightful understanding of the Fish-Fisher symbolism. Students of the Grail literature have been too prone to treat the question on the Christian basis alone, oblivious to the fact that Christianity did no more than take over, and adapt to its own use, a symbolism already endowed with a deeply rooted prestige and importance.
So far the subject cannot be said to have received adequate treatment; certain of its aspects have been more or less fully discussed in monographs and isolated articles, but we still await a comprehensive study on this most important question27.
So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.
In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish28.
The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms: "Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich29." The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.
In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.
In the Mahayana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion30.
This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (== Avalokitesvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish. In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch'ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in times of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.
Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha. In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, 'teacher and lord of all wisdom,' so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing all the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish's tail31.
The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that "the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life32." If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks: "Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took is first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus33."
There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.
We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies 'Lord,' and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it. It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher34. in the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have found to our 'Fisher King35.' Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.
In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice36.
What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful. As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day. Eisler remarks that "in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided in fragments, at night-fall. In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve37."
This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully described by the two writers referred to. The elements of this mystic meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the Messianic tradition: "At the end of the meal God will give to the most worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing--one of fabulous dimensions38."
Fish play an important part in the Mystery Cults, as being the 'holy' food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find Fish and Cup; and Döaut;lger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in the Balkans, says, "Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben39."
Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be found the source of Borron's Fish-meal. Let us consider the circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. Their position is somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons40.
Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail. A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch a fish. Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side. He does this, and the seats are filled--"Si s'i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de cels qui n'i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent." Those who are seated at the table are conscious of a great "douceur," and "l'accomplissement de lor cuers," the rest feel nothing.
Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom41.
Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch. The younger lad, who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it. Immediately he becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew his thumb to obtain wisdom. Mr Nutt remarks: "The incident in Borron's poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned, and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du Graal."
But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron's romance than does the Finn story, in which beyond the catching of a fish, there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the evil is brought about automatically. The Finn story has no common meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected therewith.
In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful, in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.
Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very widespread prevalence.
Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian or Mystery sources?
This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced Christian tone of Borron's romance I should feel inclined to exclude the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by all.
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized category of Christian belief. A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios, of the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time and ingenuity42. In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning his journeys says:
"Paul I had as my guide,Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, "As the last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian Mystery language." While Harnack, admitting that the Christian character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: "aber das Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht." Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances, Borron's Fish-meal should also be added. Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during their prolonged wanderings, annually 'kept their Resurrection,' i.e., celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish43. On their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited above44. In this last instance the connection of the Fish with life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.
The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in the belief, referred to in a previous chapter45, that all life comes from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove. Cumont in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain, says: "Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and Fish. Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings. The Fish were preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the offender with ulcers and tumours46."
But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the flesh of the goddess. Eisler and other scholars are of the opinion that it was the familiarity with this ritual gained by the Jews during the Captivity that led to the adoption of the Friday Fish-meal, already referred to, Friday being the day dedicated to the goddess and, later, to her equivalent, Venus. From the Jews the custom spread to the Christian Church, where it still flourishes, its true origin, it is needless to say, being wholly unsuspected47.
Dove and Fish also appear together in ancient iconography. In Comte Goblet d'Alviella's work The Migration of Symbols there is an illustration of a coin of Cyzicus, on which is represented an Omphalus, flanked by two Doves, with a Fish beneath48; and a whole section is devoted to the discussion of the representations of two Doves on either side of a temple entrance, or of an Omphalus. In the author's opinion the origin of the symbol may be found in the sacred dove-cotes of Phoenicia, referred to by Cumont.
Scheftelowitz instances the combination of Fish-meal and Dove, found on a Jewish tomb of the first century at Syracuse, and remarks that the two are frequently found in combination on Christian tombstones49.
Students of the Grail romances will not need to be reminded that the Dove makes its appearance in certain of our texts. In the Parzival it plays a somewhat important rôle; every Good Friday a Dove brings from Heaven a Host, which it lays upon the Grail; and the Dove is the badge of the Grail Knights50. In the prose Lancelot the coming of the Grail procession is heralded by the entrance through the window of a Dove, bearing a censer in its beak51. Is it not possible that it was the already existing connection in Nature ritual of these two, Dove and Fish, which led to the introduction of the former into our romances, where its rôle is never really adequately motivated? It is further to be noted that besides Dove and Fish the Syrians reverenced Stones, more especially meteoric Stones, which they held to be endowed with life potency, another point of contact with our romances52.
That the Fish was considered a potent factor in ensuring fruitfulness is proved by certain prehistoric tablets described by Scheftelowitz, where Fish, Horse, and Swastika, or in another instance Fish and Reindeer, are found in a combination which unmistakeably denotes that the object of the votive tablet was to ensure the fruitfulness of flocks and herds53.
With this intention its influence was also invoked in marriage ceremonies. The same writer points out that the Jews in Poland were accustomed to hold a Fish feast immediately on the conclusion of the marriage ceremony and that a similar practice can be proved for the ancient Greeks54. At the present day the Jews of Tunis exhibit a Fish's tail on a cushion at their weddings55. In some parts of India the newly-wedded pair waded knee-deep into the water, and caught fish in a new garment. During the ceremony a Brahmin student, from the shore, asked solemnly, "What seest thou?" to which the answer was returned, "Sons and Cattle56." In all these cases there can be no doubt that it was the prolific nature of the Fish, a feature which it shares in common with the Dove, which inspired practice and intention.
Surely the effect of this cumulative body of evidence is to justify us in the belief that Fish and Fisher, being, as they undoubtedly are, Life symbols of immemorial antiquity, are, by virtue of their origin, entirely in their place in a sequence of incidents which there is solid ground for believing derive ultimately from a Cult of this nature. That Borron's Fish-meal, that the title of Fisher King, are not accidents of literary invention but genuine and integral parts of the common body of tradition which has furnished the incidents and mise-en-scène of the Grail drama. Can it be denied that while from the standpoint of a Christian interpretation the character of the Fisher King is simply incomprehensible, from the standpoint of Folk-tale inadequately explained, from that of a Ritual survival it assumes a profound meaning and significance? He is not merely a deeply symbolic figure, but the essential centre of the whole cult, a being semi-divine, semi-human, standing between his people and land, and the unseen forces which control their destiny. If the Grail story be based upon a Life ritual the character of the Fisher King is of the very essence of the tale, and his title, so far from being meaningless, expresses, for those who are at pains to seek, the intention and object of the perplexing whole. The Fisher King is, as I suggested above, the very heart and centre of the whole mystery, and I contend that with an adequate interpretation of this enigmatic character the soundness of the theory providing such an interpretation may be held to be definitely proved.
1. Cf. my Sir Gawain at the Grail
Castle, pp. 3--30. The best text is that of MS. B.N., fonds Franç. 12576, ff. 87vo--91.
The above remarks apply also to the Elucidation, which is using a version of
the Bleheris form